Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds is one of the best games released in the last year. It pairs peerless role-playing game design with audiovisual excellence. It draws on the studio’s experience as a legendary development team in the genre, and reinvents elements of classic games like Fallout, Mass Effect, and BioShock while also having its own funky tone. It’s a well-written, dense, feature-rich RPG adventure that has the epic feel of a massive open world game paired with a more reasonable, easily-finished size.
In addition to exceptional Unreal Engine-powered visuals, the game features a rousing, brilliant soundtrack composed by Justin E. Bell. It is the final ingredient that takes the game from “great” to “ highest tier.” The music is filled to the brim with thrilling majesty, and right from the title screen, it makes you feel like you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime space adventure. I’ve been replaying the game for a second time this week, and the music is just as excellent on repeat listen as it is for newcomers.
The title screen music is also the title theme of the game, called “Hope.” It’s nearly eight minutes of gorgeous scene-setting sonic delight. It delves deep into the catalog of live orchestra instruments beyond genre-typical horns and strings all the way to the contra-bass flute, and enchants players with a few different takes on the game’s ear-worm main theme. It’s likable from moment one, and perfectly captures the balance of melancholy, earnestness, and old-school sci-fi action that the game contains.
There’s no other way to describe this piece than special. It accomplishes more thematically with its wide range of instruments, dynamics, and emotional oomph than most games do in their first hour. I’ve been humming this theme to myself off-and-on at random since the game first launched in October.
Fortunately, the rest of the soundtrack delivers on the promise of its opening, carefully weaving between “delightful background accompaniment” and the same rousing thrills as the opening theme, while exploring different genres and instrumentation. The soundtrack gets in your face when it needs to emphasize a cinematic moment, such as in “Phineas Escapes,” and also knows how to build effective environmental flavor during player exploration, like in the opening town theme “Edgewater.”
I love the guitar licks that punch through during this song. They give the opening town a little of that classic “Space Western” vibe, while also evoking the haunting and legendary guitar from Matt Uelmen’s famous Diablo soundtrack. This is a pretty great trick. Bell manages to evoke the father of action RPGs and TV’s Firefly all at once, while also doing his own thing that stays true to the feel of this quirky space opera.
One of the the many smart sonic decisions in The Outer Worlds is to occasionally remind players of the opening “Hope” theme, both by weaving strains of it into other tracks, and by using a small chunk of it as the “level up” sound. Each time your character earns new skill points, you’ll hear a little of that iconic music again, and instantly rush back to the excitement of hearing the title screen for the first time.
The game has enough unique music tracks in it that it’s your constant reassuring companion, gently nudging your imagination into thinking the game is larger than it really is. That illusion is helped by fun micro-scale musical details. For example, the game features several different large corporations, and each one has their own diegetic theme music you might hear in a shop, on an elevator, or from a vending machine. It’s awesome that they went this extra mile to sell the completeness of the audio world.
Even the mixing of the audio has a natural vibe to it that helps enhance the themes of the game world. Rather than present a pristine, precise soundstage, the music is mixed as though you’re sitting in the middle of an orchestra, in spite of using a mix of both live instrumentation and sampled sounds.
You’ll hear a little more openness, depth, and “humanity” to the instruments than you might in a production with aspirations towards “perfection.” There’s a breathy quality and air to the music that gives every track an authentic feel, and you can almost see the performers sitting around you if you close your eyes.
The game’s mixing benefits strongly from headphones or a nice pair of speakers, and the music’s dynamic range is as wide as I’d expect from a well-balanced classical album.
In the recent history of gaming, the only other time I was so surprised at the impressive deployment of orchestral music to elevate tone and texture into the stratosphere was 2013’s Sim City reboot. Chris Tilton’s score for that game shares a lot of the same rousing, iconic qualities, and just like with The Outer Worlds, I found myself idly humming Sim City’s lively theme for months after first playing it.
I like to imagine that the two games are sonic cousins reaching out to each other through time…but that’s just a weird connection from my brain rather than anything intentional.
If you haven’t yet played The Outer Worlds, you’re missing out on one of the best-playing and best-sounding action RPG’s. If you’d like to grab the soundtrack, it’s available for streaming and buying on a whole host of online services (see the list here). The game is available on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC, and on the latter two platforms it’s also part of Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription. It’s a must-play for fans of the genre, and inviting enough for first-timers. Both groups will likely love the music.
Few games fuse their visual and musical presentations together as well as this one. The Outer Worlds blends impressive graphics with sharp game design, free of the cruft that sometimes hangs on the genre. It immediately grabs your attention with one of the best musical themes to ever appear in a game, and lives up to that sonic promise throughout its run-time. I can’t recommend it enough, both for those looking for a great game and those who love stirring orchestral music.